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Top 5 Highway Cruisers

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author photo by Josh Sadlier January 2012

With all the talk these days about fuel economy and downsizing, the affordable full-size sedan seems to be an endangered species. Sure, there will always be luxury barges like the Mercedes-Benz S-Class for those with means, but today's average driveway is more likely to contain a compact hatchback than a traditional large sedan. We think that's a shame, as there's really no substitute for the magic carpet ride of a big, softly sprung, powerful cruiser-you know, the kind that ruled our highways for decades until OPEC got involved.

But don't count the big dogs out just yet. Thanks to both efficiency gains in the engine room and sustained demand from American buyers, the large-sedan is thriving. We never pass up an opportunity to rule the road like Americans used to, so we examined the current crop and attempted to pick a winner. That plan failed because all of these cars are pretty darn good, but we were able to narrow the field down to a handful of finalists. Here then, in no particular order, are the top 5 large sedans you can cruise in for 2012.

1. Chrysler 300/Dodge Charger

Nearly identical underneath, the recently redesigned 300 and Charger reveal rather different personalities from the driver seat. The 300 is the stately one, boasting an exceptionally refined interior and a soothing ride no matter the speed or surface. The Charger, with its colorful cabin and sportier tuning, has a little edge. But either way, you're getting a whole lot of burly rear-wheel-drive goodness for well under $30,000 to start. A word of advice: absolutely ante up for the $1,000 eight-speed automatic transmission if you want the base 3.6-liter V6. The rudimentary five-speed unit (still mandatory in V8 models, by the way) is incongruous in such a well-executed product. Otherwise, you really can't go wrong with these cars. Close your eyes in the 300's palatial backseat at speed and you could be in a $70,000 Lexus LS.

2. Buick LaCrosse

Eagle-eyed automotive observers will note that the LaCrosse shares its underpinnings with the current Chevrolet Malibu, a strictly middle-of-the-road family sedan. Trust us: the LaCrosse is nothing like the Malibu, unless you count its oddly narrow trunk. Wafting down the highway on the LaCrosse's marshmallow dampers, one gets the sense that Buick benchmarked an old Park Avenue. We mean that as a sincere compliment; outside of perhaps a Rolls-Royce or an S-Class, we can't think of a car with a more agreeable highway demeanor. But get this-if you lose your mind and dive into a corner like you're driving a Corvette, the LaCrosse actually evinces some balance and bite. What's more, the LaCrosse has one of GM's nicest interiors ever, and surely one of its largest backseats ever. We wish all Buicks were this true to the brand's historical identity, though we're not sold on the new-for-2012 "eAssist" four-cylinder model, which is fuel-efficient but lacks the grunt that Buick devotees may expect. Fortunately, the robust 3.6-liter V6 rectifies this problem and you won't have to pay extra for the more powerful V6 version - both versions of the LaCrosse have the same price tag.

3. Hyundai Azera

Forgive our short-windedness here; Hyundai hasn't let anyone pilot a production-ready version of the completely redesigned 2012 Azera yet, so we can't comment on how it drives. We've seen and sat in one, however, and our educated guess is that the competition is going to have its hands full. The Azera's exterior styling seems better-resolved than the LaCrosse's, with tighter proportions and more dynamic curves. Inside, materials quality is very good, and the backseat is-like all others in this segment-a first-class place to be. Hyundai says the only engine for now will be a reworked version of the old Azera's 3.3-liter V6 that's good for 293 horsepower this time around; we wish the formerly optional 3.8-liter V6 were offered as well, though 293 hp would still put the Azera at the front of the V6 class. Stay tuned for driving impressions and pricing information once we get our hands on a test car.

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4. Toyota Avalon

The granddaddy of this group, the current Avalon debuted way back in the 2005 model year. Not surprisingly, it lacks some of the whiz-bang gadgetry of its newer rivals. Nonetheless, it's still got the most satisfying V6 of the bunch, and its interior quality matches that of some Lexus relatives. Stylistically, the Avalon is akin to the LaCrosse: its overall appearance is bland, and the elongated rear doors make it look more like a livery taxi than a civilian sedan. But the backseat is sublime, and the Avalon eats highway miles with the best of them. If you drive one and like it, keep in mind that it's been around for a while, so there may be some great deals out there on low-mileage pre-owned specimens.

5. Volkswagen Passat

We were tempted to put the Ford Taurus here instead, as the redesigned 2012 Passat technically competes with smaller family sedans like the Ford Fusion and Nissan Altima. But whereas the hefty Taurus drives more like a crossover SUV, the Passat-engineered specifically for the U.S. this time around-feels for all the world like Germany's idea of a Buick Roadmaster. Oh, sure, the Passat can corner a little, but its strongest trait by far is its hushed, pillowy ride. Apparently the good volks at Volkswagen concluded that Americans like big soft cars, and we're certainly not complaining. There's also big-time V6 power available if you're not moved by the offbeat standard inline-5, as well as a novel turbodiesel option that returns 34-35 mpg combined. Add the available Fender stereo and we'd take this thing cross-country in a heartbeat.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Top 5 Highway Cruisers - Autotrader